NEW YORK — What makes children laugh tells us a great deal about what's on their minds and their level of development, according to Lawrence Kutner, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of public health at the University of Minnesota.
"The specific things children laugh at tell us which developmental tasks they are struggling with," says Kutner, author of "Parent & Child: Getting Through to Each Other" (William Morrow and Co., 1991, $18.95). "That explains why 3-year-olds, who are mastering toilet training, love bathroom humor. Seven-year-olds, who aren't worried about toilet training anymore, think 'potty' jokes are just stupid."
It also explains why peek-a-boo makes a toddler laugh. Kutner says babies learn some very complex things during their first year, including the fact that objects and people exist even when they can't be seen. While a baby is learning this, peek-a-boo is fraught with tension and excitement. He's pretty sure Mom is still there and will come back, but he's not certain. When she does reappear, the baby laughs with relief and glee. He can predict the future. What was scary is now fun.
"But if Mom keeps her face hidden for too long," Kutner says, "the child's tension will turn to fear, and he'll cry."
Once children grasp a new concept, they love to play with it. That's why 2-year-olds go for combinations of words and nonsense syllables. "They've learned to tell the words from the nonsense," says Kutner. "Nonsense words are sounds that are out of place. They're funny."
Similarly, putting mittens on hands isn't funny. But putting a mitten on his nose is hysterical to a 2-year-old because he knows it doesn't belong there. He's done it on purpose to be silly. He's learned to make a joke.
A 6-year-old, struggling to master logic and abstract ideas, finds riddles and jokes full of mismatched combinations, plays on words or logical flaws to be her favorites. "Why did the elephant wear blue sneakers?" "So he could hide in the blueberry bush."
The elephant who thinks he can blend into the blueberries by making part of himself blue doesn't understand something that the child does. "It's a funny image to 6-year-olds because they can imagine and identify with the elephant who is trying in vain to hide," says Kutner. "The small child knows more than the big elephant."
The innocent tone of children's jokes changes toward the end of grade school. By the time boys are 10, they are telling jokes that are very physically violent and very sexual. Girls that age like humor that is verbally aggressive, perhaps because they often have better verbal skills than boys. They may tease each other about boyfriends.
While the kids' jokes may seem quite different to their parents and teachers, boys and girls use humor to do the same things. When an 11-year-old boy snickers at a joke about rape or prostitution, he's not making a judgment about those topics. Sexual issues are much too stressful for him to deal with directly. "The child uses the joke to check out what feelings and behaviors are acceptable," says Kutner. "He can try out a position and, if necessary, back away fast."
Jokes can serve another purpose at this age as well. They can be like team sweat shirts, letting the other children know who belongs and who doesn't. Those who "get" a particular joke are in the group; those who don't aren't.